By Matt Singer
[Photo: Jess Weixler in “Teeth,” Roadside Attractions, 2008]
“Vagina dentata” is Latin for “toothed vagina” and it’s a longstanding myth borne of the eternal fear of men everywhere about what lurks within the holiest of holies. This man had never heard of it before seeing the new film “Teeth,” which deposits the idea into a horror comedy about a teenage girl who discovers that her newfound sexuality has a, ahem, biting sense of humor. Maybe I’m too psychosexually well-adjusted. Maybe I’m just not that well versed in classical myths.
So I wasn’t too familiar, but all the guys in “Teeth” are. These men rapists, molesters, abusers, perverts or amoral scumbags all live in a perpetual state of feminine fear. At one point, a man learns not to screw with Dawn (Jess Weixler) the hard way and he shrieks “IT’S TRUE! VAGINA DENTATA!” Quite an astute observation for a man who just had the tips of his fingers forcibly circumcised, no?
As a child, Dawn accidentally does the same to her stepbrother Brad (John Hensley), and when we rejoin them as teenagers, the incident has wreaked havoc on each other’s subconscious. As Dawn has become a major player in a local church group devoted to abstinence, when it’s time for Brad to have sex, he refuses any option but anal. Dawn whose unique anatomy is probably the result of a genetic mutation sparked by the pollution from the ominous nuclear power plant that looms over her family’s house falls for Tobey (Hale Appleman), another boy in her chastity circle, and finds herself questioning her beliefs about premarital sex for the first time. Tobey initially appears wholesome, but he turns out to be a predator instead, and an encounter between the two at an idyllic swimming hole turns from consensual making out to nonconsensual rape. That’s when the metaphorical claws come out.
Most of the movie continues on like that. All the men in Dawn’s life, except her stepfather, who’s actually kind, and her obvious jerk of a stepbrother, seem innocent until she lets them get close and they subsequently turn into slobbering, ravenous sex beasts. There is no complexity to any of these antagonists, nor to the choices Dawn has to make. The jokes aren’t particularly funny and the scares aren’t particularly scary. Maybe there’s no other way to make a movie about a woman with a toothed vagina, though I’d like to think there is.
“Teeth” is directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and interestingly, the film’s best gag is a piece of clever graphic design. The local school board has forbidden Dawn’s school from teaching female anatomy and covered up the “offending” parts of her textbook with a larger gold sticker with a scalloped edge (the corresponding male passages have been deemed acceptable and left visible). When Dawn and her classmates attempt to peel off the sticker it rips and tears the page to the point of illegibility. It’s an appropriate emblem of women’s second-class status in society, but the rest of the movie lacks that scene’s ingenuity. “Teeth” has a good premise, a talented cast of young actors, a lot of obvious jokes and tiresomely “shocking” gore shots. It feels like a missed opportunity. I’d like to call a mulligan on the whole movie. Can we just throw the whole thing out and start again from the beginning?